Well, this is it for a while. Next Sunday is my last Sunday with you and then my family and I step away for four months for a period of renewal leave; but today is my last sermon until the end of September. I wanted to take a little time this morning to explain what is going to happen this summer and why it is happening.
Much care, attention, and prayer has gone into designing a renewal experience over the summer that will enable you and I to engage with the creative arts and spirituality. We have a slate of artists lined up to come to Cross of Grace and lead you in this process.
You’ve already been given a taste of what’s to come through the recent adult forums: Rob Saler’s class on art appreciation and Tom Orr’s on poetry. But we officially kick off next Sunday when special guest Aaron Niequist will lead us in worship both in the morning as well as at a special service at 5pm. Aaron wrote an insightful book about his experience forming a faith community at the Willow Creek megachurch where he was a worship leader. This faith community, called “The Practice,” was designed around the principle that worship should be a springboard into daily discipleship. He created a worship format that included teaching about spiritual practices and then actually practicing them during worship.
Next Sunday morning Aaron Niequist will lead us in the spiritual practice of lectio divina (intentional and deliberate re-reading of scripture with an openness to revelation). At the 5pm worship he will introduce us to the Examen – a daily prayer of reflecting on the day’s events and what God might have been up to through them. I have spoken to many people who share in my excitement that he will be our guest and they often say, “How did you get him?” My answer is that I read his book and sent him an email in which I told him a little bit about what we’re up to here, I told him about my passion for spiritual practices that is being nurtured through my continuing education program, and told him about the summer’s focus on creativity and spirituality. It wasn’t a hard sell; he seemed genuinely excited from the beginning.
Over the summer look for additional ways to explore your creativity and spirituality. A fun and engaging book about the subject written by Rob Bell will be available to you. It’s called How to Be Here. Copies will be available for you to read, discuss, and share.
There will also be two arts workshops. On July 13 local artist Gary Schmitt will lead workshops on the art of felting. You will be able to create doves out of wool. I’m fascinated by the process and wish I could participate.
Through the month of August the church will look a little different as we will host an exhibit of artwork by acclaimed painter Kyle Ragsdale. Kyle works with the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis as well as Redeemer Presbyterian as their Coordinator of Liturgical Arts. Then in September he will lead a painting class that is open to the church and community.
I hope you will tend to the creative impulses that will call to you over the summer. When we return together at the end of September we will celebrate one another’s creativity and spiritual growth with an exhibit of our experiments in creativity. I would love to read your poetry, hear your music, view your oil paintings or doves sculpted out of wool, admire your woodwork projects, or whatever else you create of the summer. The evening will also include a potluck meal and a concert featuring our contemporary music minister, Kaitlyn Ferry.
Too often we lose sight of the importance of creative expression in our lives. If we are to grow spiritually, we must immerse ourselves in the things that reflect God. Given that God is a creator, we can grow in our connection to the divine by being creators, ourselves.
The arts are a centerpiece for my part of the renewal experience as well. Music is one of my spiritual languages, so I am looking forward to taking in a couple music festivals, singing at evensong services in historical English cathedrals, enjoying Broadway musicals, and also hand-crafting a guitar over the course of a couple weeks in Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
The renewal experience is about more than engaging in creative pursuits, though.
Someone recently asked me what I am most looking forward to regarding the upcoming renewal leave. Sure, there’s the travel, amazing food, quiet time to catch up on reading, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I am looking forward to enjoying; however, my answer was that I was looking forward to not being “Pastor Aaron” for a couple months.
Everyone who works faces the temptation to synchronize their identity with their vocation. Teachers start to think of themselves as teachers; CEOs start to think of themselves as bosses; doctors as doctors; farmers as farmers; factory workers as factory workers, and so on. A sense of call or vocation is important, but our jobs always fail us as a marker of identity. Anytime our understanding of ourselves (or others’ understanding of us) is dependent on what we do, we’re in dangerous territory. The truth followers of Christ lift up is that our true identity is as beloved image-bearers of the divine – “unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God's glorious universe,” as Dallas Willard states.
Four months of intentional separateness from my vocation is an invitation to explore and lean into my true identity. I am not the sermons I preach, the pastoral care I show, the events I put on for youth, nor the teaching I offer; I am not what you think of me; and I am not the church I serve. I tell you, though, it’s hard to remember that. Much the same way that teachers likely find it hard to disentangle their identity from the academic success or failure of their students; or business owners struggle to disentangle their identity from the success or failure of their enterprise.
This summer I get to be dad, husband, a tourist, a guitar-builder, a worshipper, a friend, a son, and most importantly, an image-bearer of the divine whose worth is determined by God, not by what I do.
I want you to know that this summer is an incredible gift for my family and me; but also for you. Please make time this summer to reconnect with your own belovedness.
Pick up a paintbrush and reconnect with your belovedness.
Take a trip and reconnect with your belovedness.
Spend time with family and reconnect with your belovedness.
Practice a new spiritual discipline and reconnect with your belovedness.
Take a break from something, watch as life carries on without you, and reconnect with your belovedness.
Thank you for giving, being, and receiving this gift. Amen.